We have all heard about the terrible migrant crisis going on at the moment. It is the largest influx of people in Europe since the end of WW2. Many of them are fleeing from civil war and economic crisis. Today I heard an extraordinary story about one refugee that I thought I would share with you. Sixteen year old Noujain Mustaffa from Kobani in Syria is one of the thousands of refugees fleeing her home country. Noujain has Cerebral Palsy and is in a wheelchair. She became known to the world last month when she and her sister along with about forty other migrants made the dangerous crossing from Turkey to the Greek Island of Lesbos in a small dingy. She was photographed by Irish photographer Ivor Prickett being helped out of the boat. Prickett was on an assignment in Lesbos for the United Nations Refugee Agency. He later posted pictures of her on his Instagram and spoke of their interaction:
“Let me tell you about an amazing young woman I met a few days ago. 16-year old Syrian refugee Nogeen, who is a wheelchair user, landed on the Greek Island of Lesvos after crossing the Aegean in an inflatable boat from Turkey. She and her older sister Nisreen had made the journey along with 40 or so other Syrians. The girls had decided to make the journey to Europe so that Nougain could receive better medical attention. After a very rough crossing, which had left most of the passengers cold and terrified, Nogeen seemed extremely calm and happy. A fluent English speaker, when i asked if she had been afraid during the crossing she said “No i enjoyed it. I have never been on a boat before, It was very beautiful. I didn’t know if I was going to live or die, but thanks God we are here”. Ivor Prickett
Two weeks later Noujain appeared again stranded on the border between Serbia and Hungary. Hungary had closed its doors and so hundreds of refugees were congregating wondering where to turn next. Here she met BBC journalist Fergal Keane and talked to him about her journey so far. During this interview Noujain comes across as a bright, funny engaging young girl. She talks about her dreams of becoming an astronaut and meeting the Queen.
Her English which is very impressive despite never having gone to school, is the result of watching soap opera’s. Her favourite of these is an American show called Days of Our Lives. She describes her favourite characters with the same enthusiasm as any teenage girl would. When the English comedian and political commentator John Oliver (who hosts the spin-off to The Daily Show) heard this he contacted the actors and got them to perform a little sketch to send to Noujain. She was over joyed and thanked all involved. She also had some other words of wisdom for people who are struggling in war-torn countries:
‘You should fight to get what you want in this world. Yes, it’s a journey for a new life. I have been trying many things for the first time during this journey like a train and a ship so I just enjoyed it.‘ Noujain Mustaffa
It’s hard to imagine how anyone could enjoy any part of such a harrowing journey but Noujain points out that the world she has escaped from is what she really fears. Herself and her sister have had to leave their parents behind and they don’t know if they will ever see them again. In the interview she asks Keane if he can imagine being a sixteen year old who is always afraid that she or her loved ones are going to die. Of course he cannot imagine it and neither can I. She describes her life in Syria as a real horror movie. As soon as you hear this it’s easier to see why anything would be better than this.
I can’t comprehend being that desperate that I would risk my life for the mere chance at a better life. In the spirit of full disclosure I will tell you, for those who don’t already know that I too am a wheelchair user and the thought of travelling across the ocean in a rubber dingy while sitting in my chair is a terrifying one. I sometimes get scared of taking public transport that isn’t fully accessible for God sake. I like everyone else have seen heartbreaking pictures and video footage of refugees making these kinds of journeys for months now but perhaps the fact that I have something in common with this girl is the reason this story made such an impact.
‘It was the first time I see the sea. It was beautiful, when you’re not in it.‘ Noujain Mustaffa
This reminded me of a previous post I wrote about Cecil the Lion where research showed that our empathy grows when the subject has a name and a back story. This is because empathy forms between individuals. Of course I feel for all those migrants but sometimes the sheer volume of people is overwhelming and I cannot take it in. The more individual stories I hear though the more I can relate. Another image that has imprinted itself on my brain is of the little boy who was found dead on the beach in Turkey back in June. Three year old Aylan Kurdi drowned, along with his brother Galip who was five and their mother Rehan. The dinghy that was supposed to carry them to the Greek Island of Kos capsized a few miles off the Turkish coast. The family was trying to eventually reach Canada because they had relations there and the chance of a new start. This image did provoke an out pouring of grief and anger but clearly four months on this was not enough to effect any real change.
During the course of the BBC report with Fergal Keane he explains that Noujain and her sister, like so many others were trying to get to Germany where they hoped to be reunited with their brother. He is already living there and seeking asylum. Germany it seems has become the promise land but I do wonder how long they can sustain this unless other countries are also willing to do their part. Noujain told Keane that everyone in Turkey wanted them out and she did not feel welcome there.
As if the journey across the sea isn’t harrowing enough to then face racist or cruel treatment when you arrive seems utterly inhumane. Each country is trying to deal with this over whelming situation and the reactions have been very varied. Hungry for example has been extremely opposed to welcoming refugees and violent scenes have been documented. One journalist was fired for kicking migrants, even children who were trying to get over the border. Fear often breads resentment and people can respond in very hostile ways.
Just three days after Noujain’s interview Keane saw her again in a refugee camp in Slovenia. This clip made her situation look bleak but thankfully there was light at the end of the tunnel. They finally reached Germany after travelling nearly four thousand miles and found their brother. This scene at the train station where they were reunited was an emotional one. Keane described it perfectly when he said that although they were not speaking English joy needs no translations. Their happy faces said it all.
“I have something to say to the victims of the wars around the world, You are stronger and braver than you think. Fight for what you want, and I am sure that you will get it.” Noujain Mustaffa
From here Noujain must apply for asylum and as a Syrian refugee with her medical condition her chances are good. When asked if she ever saw a time when she and her family could return to Syria she said that she believed it would be a long time before Syria gets back up again but she felt sure that it would eventually. When I heard this very moving and mature response I couldn’t help thinking that Syria’s loss is Germany’s gain. I felt hopeful for her future but unfortunately every migrant story doesn’t end like this one. She is just one face in the crowd. Noujain I hope will turn out to be one of the lucky ones but thousands more will either die or continue to be rejected by Europe. They will be forced to return home and in some cases that is a faith worse than death.
Rather than focusing on the fear of what might happen if we let people in maybe we should first deal with what is happening when we don’t. I don’t claim to have the answer or to even understand all the complexities involved but one things for sure so far Europe’s response isn’t good enough. Children should not be allowed to live or die in this way. I do hope however that journalists will keep bringing these individual stories to our screens because Noujain’s spirit and bravery gave me hope. If this is an example of the kind of people knocking on our countries doors then there is no question in my mind that we should let them in.